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Lonely people are less likely to feel moved by displays of kindness

Lonelier participants seemed to be less moved because they didn't believe people's altruism was genuine.

18 August 2022

By Emily Reynolds

Loneliness is a significant issue in the UK. According to the Campaign to End Loneliness, 45% of adults feel occasionally, sometimes, or often lonely in England – around twenty five million people. Loneliness has also been associated with changes in brain structure and can even make us feel worse when we have a cold.

A new study looks at the link between loneliness and another factor: feeling moved. Writing in Motivation and Emotion, a team from Jagiellonian University in Poland find that lonely people are less likely to be moved – potentially a side effect of their lack of belief in others’ good intentions.

In the first study, 267 participants indicated how often they felt lonely, reported on symptoms of depression, and filled in a scale measuring empathy. After completing these measures, participants watched one of two short video clips intended to induce a feeling of being moved; both showed a person helping those around him and receiving gratitude from others.

Following this, participants indicated whether they had experienced various aspects of being moved, including specific sensations (e.g. moist eyes or a lump in their throat), ‘appraisals’ (e.g. a sense of closeness with the protagonist of the video), motivations to act (e.g. wanting to hug someone), emotion (having positive feelings) and ways of labelling the video (e.g. it was heartwarming). Finally, the team measured participants’ general tendency to be moved.

The results showed that those who described themselves as more lonely were less moved by the films; they also considered themselves less susceptible to being moved in general. Lonelier people tended to show more symptoms of depression and reduced feelings of empathy, but these couldn’t fully explain why they were less moved.

The second study looked to understand why lonely people were less moved. After completing the loneliness scales, participants reported their current mood and were asked to recall a positive situation that had made them (or almost made them) cry. They then rated how moved they were using the same scale as the first study, and reported on their general tendency to be moved.

Again, lonelier participants were less likely to be moved, even though they had chosen the moving stimuli themselves. Loneliness also predicted a lack of vividness of the memory, and was linked to problems remembering moving situations. And even though lonely participants did tend to have a lower mood, this was again not responsible for the relationship between loneliness and being less moved.

The final study explored whether lonely people might be less moved because they experience and interpret social situations in a different way. First, the participants completed the loneliness and depression measures, before watching one of the video clips used in the first study. They then described their emotional reaction to the film, assessed its overall story, and interpreted the protagonist's behaviour and intentions.

As before, loneliness was associated with feeling less moved. And low trust in the protagonist’s altruism seemed to be the driver of this relationship, with lonelier participants feeling less moved because they did not think the character was sincerely kind. Lonely people may perceive the world as a less kind, more negative place due to experiences of rejection, thus experiencing less trust and fewer opportunities to be moved.

This means, as other research has shown, that loneliness could be a circular experience, with loneliness fostering unpleasant social experiences which then compound the feeling of being alone. As the team puts it, low sensitivity to being moved could be “both a source and a result of loneliness”.